Politics & Policy

The BET ME Challenge

(Nikkytok/Dreamstime)
BET ME would put the pundits’ money where their predictions are.

It’s December, meaning that the pundits-and-predictions season is upon us. In the name of public safety and common-sense reform, somebody has to put a stop to this madness.

Regular readers will have by now detected my pronounced skepticism of government regulation — of both its wisdom and its effectiveness. But even the most gimlet-eyed small-government man has his hesitations — e.g., William F. Buckley Jr.’s late-in-life confession that he would, despite his free-market principles, ban smoking, had he the power to do so. If I were inclined to violate my own libertarian leanings, I’d lobby the new Republican majority in Congress to enact the Better Expertise Through Monetary Exposure Act of 2015 — the BET ME Act. The purpose of the BET ME Act would be two-fold: First, it would impose accountability on pundits and self-appointed experts of all descriptions by requiring them to wager a month’s pay on the real-world outcome every time they published a prediction.

Second, and consequently, it would surely eliminate the national debt in a matter of months.

I was on the fence about this until I read the latest from UberFacts, the runaway leader in the race to be the most boneheaded thing on Twitter not called Sally Kohn: “Experts predict that solar power will be the primary source of energy on the planet in 2025.” That may be true if by “solar power” we mean the solar energy stored in dead dinosaurs and pumped out of the ground by Exxon; if by “solar power” we mean photovoltaic cells and the like, then I want these so-called experts to put their money where their tweets are. Similarly, unless you’re ready to take the appropriate position on oil futures, I don’t want to read your apocalyptic “peak oil” pabulum.

You really think New York City and London are only a few decades away from being uninhabitable because of climate change? BET ME. Are you a dopey royal who fears that mutant corn is going to kill us all? BET ME. Are you a highly credentialed but sort of sloppy academic who believes that the Western world is headed toward Dickensian social conditions? BET ME.

I anticipate an objection here: “These predictions are free speech, protected by the First Amendment.” Yeah, yeah, yeah — I know how the theory goes: The free exchange of ideas and views leads to a better state of public knowledge, and that is so valuable to a free society that it is worth bearing the costs of all the lies, ignorance, Cosmopolitan articles, superstition, and malfeasance that are also protected by the First Amendment. Areopagitica and all that. Well, screw John Milton — I have it on the excellent authority of Harry Reid and all the other Democrats in the Senate that freedom of speech applies only when Congress believes that it is consistent with the public good, and that we can restrict — with prison time, if necessary — attempts by irresponsible or self-interested parties to influence public-policy debates. If there’s a public-interest defense of Matt Yglesias’s predictions — “I wanted to once again take the opportunity to lay down a marker and say once again that Obamacare implementation is going to be a huge political success” — or Nancy Pelosi’s — “Everybody will have lower rates, better quality care, and better access” — it is far from obvious what that is. Pelosi clearly is motivated by craven political self-interest, while Yglesias is motivated by the magical goblins in his head, but there’s a good case that both should have been sanctioned for such fantastical tomfoolery.

BET ME.

Given the real-world costs of such uber-wrongness, I am tempted to set aside First Amendment principle broadly. In fact, since we’re all supposed to be good, nice, sweater-wearing, empiro-pragmatist PTA dads abjuring “extremism” in this enlightened epoch, why be a Charles C. W. Cooke–style extremist on the question of free speech? Requiring pundits to put real money on their predictions in the name of the public interest is, if you think about it, a relatively mild demand. Current legal precedent suggests we could go much, much further.

Why not treat the First Amendment the way we treat the Second Amendment? Want to start a blog? You have a constitutional right to do so — provided you pass the federal background check to ensure that you will exercise that right responsibly. If your background contains sunny predictions about the Obamacare rollout — sorry, but you cannot be trusted. Want a high-capacity, fully automatic press that can spit out thousands of copies of what may very well be arrant nonsense in a matter of minutes? Fine, so long as it was manufactured before 1986. Maybe you’re a writer living in New York City and planning to write a book on atheism; you’re entitled to do so, so long as you can persuade the NYPD that there’s a legitimate purpose for it — and there may be some paperwork to fill out and fees to pay. Operating a bookstore or publishing a periodical? Only with Washington’s permission, and we might stage some surprise inspections and demand fairly detailed records of your transactions. If the right to keep and bear arms should be restricted to government agents — if “the people” does not mean “the people” — then surely The American Prospect cannot complain if other constitutional rights, such as freedom of the press, also are restricted to government agents. And, as every reporter and editor knows, mistakes happen. But is publishing a correction really enough? How about jail time?

I anticipate an objection here: “Guns are dangerous, so we need to regulate them carefully. Free speech isn’t dangerous, so we can afford to give it free rein.” Oh, you poor, naïve people! Words and the ideas they carry are more dangerous than any gun ever invented. Never mind the millions of murders inspired by Mein Kampf and the 100 million murders inspired by The Communist Manifesto and Mao’s little red book. Nonsensical beliefs about the dangers of vaccines already have led to outbreaks of preventable diseases such as mumps and whooping cough. People who would ban many modern agricultural techniques would starve millions, perhaps billions. The so-called experts helping to steer the Obama administration’s energy policy helped put millions of dollars into useless and wasteful enterprises — depriving productive alternatives of that capital. You think that has no real-world costs? The experts predicted that the stimulus bill would have radically different effects from the ones it actually had. As a result, we threw away the better part of a trillion dollars, but the so-called experts who guided that policy paid no price.

Has Paul Krugman “gravely misled the American public”? Who am I to argue with The Nation? But if anybody can afford to place a bet, it’s the guy getting paid 25 grand a month to think about economic inequality.

For the record, I am willing to wager on my own predictions, too, starting with this one: In 2015, the pundits’ 2014 end-of-year predictions — mine included — will prove effectively indistinguishable from randomness.

Anybody want to bet me on that?

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.

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